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In the steps of the Kinlochleven Navvies

January 4, 2011

Deep in the Scottish Highlands in the upper valley of the River Leven is truly wild country, caught between the great rift of Glencoe and the mountains of Lochaber.  But this is also an industrial landscape. The village of Kinlochleven came  about as a centre for the manufacture of aluminium, powered by the stored waters of the Leven held behind the long wall of the Blackwater Dam.

The inspiration for my hill walk out to the great dam occurred several years before, some miles beyond Fort William at Glenfinnan. On a very wet day I had called in at the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre in search of something to read. The lady assistant recommended the recently republished novels of navvy life, Children of the Dead End and its sequel Moleskin Joe, by the much neglected author Patrick MacGill.

The glen of the River Leven

As the rain poured down that evening I sat by the fireside in the tiny cottage in Benderloch and avidly read these tales of navvying in early twentieth century Scotland. Although presented as novels the books are largely autobiographical, telling how the young MacGill worked on farmsteads and industrial sites around Ireland and Scotland before journeying on foot the hundred miles between Greenock and the dam construction works on the Leven.

That trek itself was quite arduous with the two navvies having to steal a boat to cross the Clyde, before they could even begin their long walk through the Highlands. They roamed on through inhospitable countryside, having to steal or scrounge for food, MacGill literally barefooted as they took the last steps of their journey over the rugged terrain to where the workers lived in a shanty town high in the hills.

It was here that MacGill was to live and work for months on end; on the great dam itself and the route of the pipelines down to Kinlochleven. The Blackwater navvies blew up and carved out great chunks of mountainside in one of the most exposed areas of the Highlands by night and day, in midge-ridden hot weather and during weeks of blizzards and lashing rain.

Men were crammed dozens to a hut, often drunk or fighting over the consequences of a gambling match. Then with the completion of the dam they were paid off and marched away to the next job leaving the remnants of where they had lived behind.

Well, not all of them marched away. Accidents during their labours were common and a number of the navvies died, to be buried below the dam in Britain’s loneliest and most atmospheric graveyard.

The Navvies Graveyard, Blackwater Dam, Kinlochleven

The aluminium works at Kinlochleven are closed now, though the workers’ houses remain in the deep vale between those high mountains. The waters of the great Blackwater Dam provides power for hydro-electricity. Some of the buildings of the old works have been given over to leisure interests, outdoor centres with climbing walls. But it feels as if the ghosts of those navvies remain in the long valley down from the dam.

Clouds thundered up the glen as I set out from Kinlochleven, though it remained dry and intermittently sunny for my first mile. The initial stage of my route was part of the West Highland Way, that very popular long distance walk from Glasgow to Fort William.

I tramped the winding and steep track through thick birchwoods up the side of the glen, at first beside the huge pipeline from the dam that curved down the hillside. Reaching higher ground the clouds delivered short but heavy and cold showers, though the sun in between the downpours warmed me and made it unnecessary to wear my much hated waterproof clothing.

The clouds were high above the mountain summits and there were fine views across to the Mamores, that great range of mountains that huddle up to the highest of all British summits – Ben Nevis.

The dam proved to be further away than I had imagined. I lost height into a deep valley, which had to be regained on its eastern side. It was close to a lonely cottage on the valley’s topmost edge that I found the conduit again, now covered by an earthen flat track above the pipes, making progress easier as it contoured the walls of the glen.

You cannot help but be amazed at this astonishing feat of engineering, on a par with the construction of the dam itself. The Blackwater navvies worked the pipeline’s route out of solid rock, much of it precipitous cliff. Where waterfalls tumbled down the slopes of the glen narrow bridges carried the pipeline high over their rushing waters. The slippery track took me sometimes deep into the hillside, then as suddenly out above incredible drops.

Far below the white waters of  Leven crashed down the glen, supplemented by what seemed to be hundreds of waterfalls from the surrounding hills.

It took three hours of walking before the dam came into view. I think I had expected something narrower and taller, rather than the long grey line of wall that traversed the head of the glen.

Some of the navvies never left their workplace. They lie in a tiny but atmospheric burial ground below the dam, a great mound of earth that they themselves probably shifted into place. Simple headstones in ragged lines mark the last resting place of a couple of dozen of Patrick MacGill’s contemporaries.

Navvies Graveyard

I walked between them reading the names which were mostly Scottish and Irish.  Some bore nicknames such as “Darkie Cunningham”, others had no name at all, perhaps bits of body unrecognisable in death after a rock fall or an accident with explosives.

MacGill relates how some workers perished in blizzards as they made a desperate journey across the mountains in search of liquor at the Kingshouse inn on the skirts of Rannoch Moor, their bones lying in the heather to this day.

We talk now of hard work and a tough existence, but what do we know of either compared to the existence of the navvies who laboured day and night on freezing mountainsides, lashed with rain and snow and attacked by swarms of midges on warmer summer days?  They lived hard, worked to extremes, fought the landscape and each other, and occasionally died in this out of the way place

As I stood there the great belt of cloud that had hung for so long over Loch Leven began to head inland towards me, bringing the promise of rain.  A track took me to the conduit and I headed for home. The showers became more frequent as the band of cloud rolled overhead, turning into a fierce downpour as I breasted the last valley before Kinlochleven.

In the birchwoods I passed three hikers huddled away from the rain in a stretch of furze, looking thoroughly dispirited. I waved a hand but they just looked miserable in return. As I walked into Kinlochleven some lads approached and asked if I had encountered three of their friends overdue whilst walking the stretch of the West Highland Way from Rannoch Moor. I pointed them in the right direction and then sat in the pouring rain on the banks of the Leven thinking about Patrick MacGill’s description of the harsh life of the navvies of Kinlochleven, whose hard existence makes the worst tribulation of hillwalkers seem very easy.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2011 10:02 pm

    he was my grandfather’s cousin. he deserves wider recognition. the description of drilling the rock at Kinlochleven chills me every time I read it.

  2. January 8, 2011 9:13 am

    Yes, Patrick MacGill was a wonderful writer and his books really sum up the hard life of the navvy. His verses are well worth seeking out as well. Some have been set to music (folk-music) on a CD called “No Stranger to the Rain” – might be available on Amazon. The folk singer is Keith Campbell, who used to live in Kinlochleven – they used to sell the CD in the information place there. I do urge you all to read Macgill’s novel “Children of the Dead End” – a good starting point for his work. A remarkable man!

  3. February 22, 2011 11:46 pm

    I published The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy, in 2001. Its now acknowledged to be the definitive history of the Irish in British construction. For more, and a pic. of the ‘Not Known’ headstone in Kinlochleven, see website above.

  4. March 3, 2011 2:18 pm

    Very good article.It`s a shame that most folk know nothing about the conditions the men who built these things toiled under.Modern life is easy.!
    My grandmother was in the same class at school as Patrick McGill in Glenties,Donegal when she was a young girl.I believe they have a statue erected there in his memory nowadays.
    Alex.

  5. March 29, 2011 2:59 pm

    Hi, I am the Keith Campbell that made the CD. I am delighted to hear that Patrick McGill’s name has been recognised as one of the great unsung hereos of Scottish/Irish social history. As a son of Kinlochleven, my interest had been fired many years previously by stories of the local people talking of McGill, Moleskin Joe and his contempories. I first read Children of the Dead End in the early 70’s while working in the aluminium smelter that the dam was built to power. This led me to read his other novels, including the war ones and then his poetry – which then inspired me to make the CD – “No Stranger to the Rain” – which I will now put on to Amazon!!

  6. March 30, 2011 9:42 am

    Can I commend Keith’s wonderful CD. If you haven’t heard it please seek it out. Well worth reading MacGill’s books. And if you can do walk up to the dam and see the little burial ground. My day there lives so much in my memory.

    • Ann Williamson -Brown permalink
      April 21, 2012 12:32 pm

      Have read three of MacGills books as have two of my friends. Heart-rendering and unforgetable. We three old ladies are to visit fort William next month and the Navvies Graveyard is on our list. We are all hardened walkers and hope to walk from Kinlochleven. Any tips!!

  7. PETER GILES permalink
    April 7, 2013 3:55 am

    I went to the attic and retrieved my youth hostel membership card. It is for 1954. I have the stamps of the hostels visited. (3) Strathtummel (4)Glencoe. Alone, I reached the railway station at Kinloch Rannoch. I asked the station master if the path cut by the telegraph poles would take me to Glencoe. I did not want to wait four hours for the train to Fort William.

    He said yes and said as I started to walk. “I hope you know what you are doing”. Prophetic words. The croaking of numerous frogs and sometimes a roaring of streams was the only companion for me. No houses or anything at all appeared along the way. After ten miles I started to become disoriented and babbling a little. I knew I had a problem. Suddenly I thought I saw a low building on top of a rise. I ran down the hill and came up the other side. The house was no longer in sight. Was it something I had actually seen, or was it a hallucination?

    I toiled on, the mist soaking me through and through. Suddenly I saw three hills and a lodge.
    I skirted the lodge and there were iron cut outs of deer replicas outside the building, which seemed closed. Presumably the iron cut outs were for target practice. Up over the hill I went, at last a road. A bus came toward me just as I got to the road. It stopped on my signal. Staggered into the youth hostel at Glencoe. Someone said that ” this character had just walked across Rannoch Moor”. I was given a bowl of soup.

    Talk about silly but my luck was in. Later I found out about the three Irish lads. RIP gentlemen.

  8. Angus mcpherson permalink
    January 26, 2014 1:05 pm

    My father was a miner at loch sloy glen shira and many other hydro jobs and read Patricks book many times he loved it.

  9. January 26, 2014 4:23 pm

    Thank you Angus. They are marvellous book and show a side of Scottish life that should never be forgotten! Regards, John.

  10. Dan permalink
    May 3, 2017 11:44 pm

    Just read it a great book I heard about it from another book ‘the men who built Britain ‘ it’s about canal building navvies ( navigators) then onto railways and roads etc through 20th century irish labour
    This was a great read and hard to imagine the tough lives they led
    My father used to mention ‘the gimp’ and these men had it it’s a kind of walk and expression hard to translate

    • May 4, 2017 6:25 am

      Hi Dan, worth reading his other books too, such as Molesking Joe and The Rat Pit. The navvies were indeed remarkable people, John

      • Dan permalink
        May 4, 2017 8:46 am

        Hi John
        Yes I will and am looking forward to them
        Thanks

  11. May 4, 2017 2:21 pm

    He also wrote some very good books about life in the trenches in the Great War. Do tune into my new blog at http://www.thefreedomtoroam.com This old one’s now archived. Regards John

    • Dan permalink
      May 4, 2017 2:36 pm

      Hi and thanks John I will do that also my dad worked in uk from 1940s to 80s on various building contracts as mainly a shuttering carpenter and on the isle of grain , London Gloucestershire etc
      My grandad however on my mother’s side was in the great war in the trenches of all the major battles so I have interest in that as well
      Thank you for the heads up 😉 dan

      • May 5, 2017 6:38 am

        Thank you Dan. I wrote a slightly longer piece on the navvies in my book Wayfarer’s Dole. My grandfather too was in the trenches and my great uncle was killed. Patrick Campbell’s book Tunnel Tigers is good on navvying in the 1950s, Regards John B.

      • Dan permalink
        May 5, 2017 8:14 am

        Oh great I’ll look into it thanks

  12. April 1, 2017 6:38 am

    A very moving place indeed.

Trackbacks

  1. A Walk Through Time – The West Highland Way
  2. Kinlochleven: Tony Schwalbe 1979-2009 « Memorial benches & the stories of the people they commemorate

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